A bit of the green

Not a drop of Irish in me, but I’ve always looked forward to St. Patrick’s Day as a harbinger of spring and some much needed green in our northern climate.

I always thought it would be great fun to spend the holiday in Ireland, where it’s part of a five-day festival that showcases Irish culture and food. This year, though, the annual parade in Dublin has been cancelled as part of a world-wide effort to curtail large-scale gatherings that could potentially spread the coronavirus. I swear the news is giving me an ulcer!

It’s so important during these uncertain times to find ways to maintain your sanity. Take a break from the media as often as you can, and celebrate life as much as you can. Since we’re all being encouraged to stay close to home, take a little virtual trip to Ireland with my hubby and I, who were just there last fall.

Ireland 2019 – a bit more adventure than we expected!

We flew Aer Lingus, who was having a great flight sale, and arrived in Dublin at 5:30am. The cab ride to our hotel, the Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge, was quick and scenic. The hotel is in a fantastic old building on a quiet piece of property a little away from the city centre but within easy reach via public transport..

Clayton Hotel Ballsbridge

Our room was, of course, not ready at that early hour, but the Front Desk stored our baggage and we walked down the sweeping lobby staircase to have some breakfast.

The hotel has a nice breakfast buffet, and our first surprise in Ireland was that all menus label each food offering as to what allergens the dish contains. For anyone, like myself, who has multiple food allergies/sensitivities, that’s a real boon. The down-side, though, is that more than half the food in the buffet contained items I can’t eat, which made meals in Dublin quite a problem for me, and I’d already stepped off the airplane with a migraine from the food on the flight.

I did manage a nice breakfast anyway, and our next, more pleasant, surprise was that the Irish like their tea ‘sturdy’! When I checked our teapot to see how much was left, I was astonished to see three tea bags in it – a far cry from the generally insipid tea served in North American restaurants.

We spent a couple of great days in Dublin, enjoying the architecture, pubs and beautiful green spaces. Dublinia, the Viking museum, was fascinating, as was the interior of Christ Church cathedral, especially the rock-walled undercroft with its store of treasures.

Christchurch Cathedral undercroft

Neither hubby or I are fond of crowds, so we enjoyed a brief excursion to the famous Temple Bar district, where I found an excellent meal of chicken breasts with a tomato, pepper and olive sauce followed by a delicious lemon meringue parfait.

Strolling the streets of the Temple Bar district

Dublin counts many famous writers among its residents, and has decided to celebrate its more goth heritage with a new attraction called Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula. It’s basically an illusionist show that’s very well done and very entertaining, and the building also features a lot of memorabilia from the author’s life as well as his legendary novel and the movies it inspired.

The easiest way to get around Dublin is to buy a pass for the hop-on, hop-off buses. If the weather is mild enough, sit on the open top deck and enjoy your driver’s entertaining commentary, get a bird’s-eye view of more wonderful architecture, and wave at the popular Viking-themed buses that go buy frequently.

Leaving Dublin, we returned to the airport and picked up our rental vehicle. We’d chosen to drive ourselves around, just as we’ve done in a number of other countries around the world, so that we could visit some sights not on the standard group-tour itineraries. A word to the wise about this: Irish roads are much narrower than ours, and hemmed on both sides by things like stone walls and hedgerows, with essentially no shoulder to speak of. Some of the roads we travelled on are purportedly 2-lane but really just a lane-and-a-half, with a few pull-over spots periodically so that oncoming traffic can pass safely. Self-driving in Ireland is NOT for the anxious driver.

Our first stop on the road was the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange. The site is accessed by shuttle bus from the visitor centre several miles away. The skies had opened up, so we sheltered as much as possible while we waited for the next shuttle, warming up with a bit to eat and some hot tea. The site is fascinating, surrounded by its own small stone henge. The entrance and passageway to the interior chamber are low and narrow, but the chamber is the prize at the end of the discomfort. Photography isn’t allowed, but the chamber consists of a central area under an incredible cantilevered stone roof – a masterpiece of engineering 5,000 years ago –  with three side chambers, one of which contains a bowl-shaped rock, and some mysterious swirled designs cut into the walls. Archeologists speculate that Newgrange was a burial site, but they still don’t know for sure.

I managed a few exterior photos while trying to keep my camera sheltered under my rain poncho, which the driving rain and wind quickly destroyed.

From there, rather wet, we went on to the Hill of Tara, where my hubby refused to get out of the car. I was determined, though, to see the ancient seat of Irish kings, so I braved the ongoing rain and wind. There didn’t seem to be anyone at the visitor centre, but the gate was unlocked, so I trudged up a little dirt path to a dismal-looking little grey church with a tiny cemetery. There was another gate at the edge of the trees at the churchyard perimeter, also unlocked, so I ventured onward. As soon as I stepped onto the grassy field beyond the trees, a cloud of white-beaked rooks rose from the tree branches and swirled raucously above my head. I felt like I was crossing the threshold to the underworld.

Rooks apparently guarding the threshold to the mystical Hill of Tara

I continued onward, up and down slippery grass slopes, until I couldn’t go any further for fear of injuring myself in the mud (did I mention that I broke one of my toes less than two weeks before we started the trip!). Also, I was worried that my hubby might be getting somewhat anxious because he’d lost sight of me as soon as I got to the church – and he was – so I headed back, passing another intrepid couple who’d also decided to battle the elements. The rooks went bananas again as I returned to the churchyard; I may have flipped them off in response.

Now truly sodden, we made our way to our overnight stop, the small town of Carnbeg, where we stripped off our wet clothes and had hot showers. My soggy socks had been completely destroyed and went in the trash. The hotel was cozy enough and had a decent gastropub on site, so we stayed in and warmed up over dinner.

The next morning we’d missed breakfast, but the helpful woman behind the Front Desk gave us a suggestion on where to eat, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things on the entire trip!

The garden shop at Standfield, on the fringes of Carnbeg, may be hard to find (we found the signage in Ireland to be as mystical as the country’s ancient history), but it’s worth the effort for the wonderful breakfasts they also serve in an extension filled with a whimsical assortment of old chairs and tables and crockery. The lush oatmeal, studded with fruit and berries, and served with tea and craggy country toast, was perfect for a cool fall morning.

Then it was on to Belfast, the legendary and troubled city which has only been safe to visit for the past couple of decades. Belfast is famous for two things: the Troubles, which dominated world news for three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, and as the city where the tragic RMS Titanic was built and launched.

As you may have already read in this blog, I am a big ‘fan’ of the Titanic story, so the opportunity to visit the slipyard and museum was a big bucket-list item for me. We decided to splurge a bit and stay right across the street from both at the wonderful Titanic hotel.

The Titanic Hotel is designed to capture the nautical ambience of the legendary ship
Our elegantly nautical room at the Titanic Hotel

That evening we booked a Black Cab tour of the sites of The Troubles. Visitors can explore the sites on their own, but we wanted an authentic and personal tour to help us understand what went on and how things became so tragically extreme, and the Black Cab tours are the best way to do that..

There are poignant reminders of the many lives lost, both young and old.

Belfast feels calm and peaceful, but you can sense the deep currents running underneath the surface and how fragile the current peace is even while it’s so desperately desired. The people have expressed their feelings in their wall art, and some of the art encourages young people today to avoid getting ensnared by old animosities, to instead create better futures than their predecessors.

The next day was devoted entirely to the Titanic story, from the excellent museum build in the shape of the a ship’s bow…

…to the only remaining ship’s tender for the Titanic, used in the port of Cherbourg that was too shallow to allow the massive liner to actually dock and necessitating transfer of the passengers and luggage out to the ship by small boat.

Belfast is a warm, pretty city to visit, with incredible history — I hope that the peace holds and that many more people will be able to explore its charms. Can I just take a moment to mention the weird and extremely tasteless proliferation of “Car Bomb” cakes I’ve been seeing on Pinterest under “Irish Food”? Having been to Belfast and feeling its deep wounds, I can’t imagine anyone from Northern Ireland who would endorse such an appallingly-named dessert.

From Belfast we headed north to the Giant’s Causeway as Hurricane Lorenzo began to make landfall. We managed to walk around a fair bit of the site before the rain hit.

With the arrival of the rain, we decided to warm up with a tour and tasting at Bushmills Distillery.

We overnighted in Portrush at a delightful B&B, venturing out in the rain for dinner at a local restaurant with one of the most delectable dessert cases we’ve ever seen!

The next morning it was time for a quick look at Royal Portrush golf course, venue for last summer’s British Open Golf Tournament, the first time it was held in Northern Ireland in something like 50 years. Then we cut across the country toward the west coast, unavoidably missing some of the reputedly spectacular north coast scenery but enjoying the road scenery nonetheless, with a stop at a roadside food truck in the middle of nowhere for a fabulous cinnamon bun and coffee!

We saw a lot of things, far too many to illustrate here, and enjoyed the incredible warmth and generosity of the Irish people throughout. A few highlights:

Our favourite small town, Donegal
Driving along all the small, winding roads of Connemara
Kylemore Abbey is stunning…
…but even more magical is the Abbey’s setting on the lake…
…and the walled Victorian Garden
Enigmatic Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb over 5,000 years old
The magnificent Cliffs of Moher, rising out of the mist and pounding waves
Lovely Killarney National Park
Ross Castle, stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan
The ruined Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century
A labyrinth at Glendalough
The magnificent gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Traditional Irish Stew in a pub

I hope that this little taste of Ireland has given you some ambience for your own celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and all the wonderful things our world still has to offer, even though a lot is on hold for now as we stay safe and wait things out. All things pass, and we’ll weather this just as we always have, with grace, humour and perseverance. Next posting: some great ways to snuggle up in your home and make the best of things! Much love and best wishes to everyone around the world.
Erica

How can we love a world that’s in such turmoil?

Pestilence, fires, plagues of locusts and political chaos – one might be forgiven for thinking that the Four Horsemen are loose!

But none of that has changed the fact that our world is a beautiful, fascinating place.

We are a global family. Maybe we’re as dysfunctional as regular families often are, but we are nonetheless all linked together in a world-wide ecosystem. We need to stay connected to each other on a deep personal level, to understand, to help, to educate.

We need to preserve our global home, which as humans we have resoundingly trashed, there’s no doubt about that. People are afraid for our future, and so some extreme solutions are being proposed.

There has been a lot of travel shaming recently, with suggestions ranging from don’t fly to don’t travel at all. While the coronavirus situation will certainly have an effect on our travel decisions until it’s over, I think the environmentally-prompted messages to stop travelling completely are completely wrong.

Travel is one of the greatest educators we have available to us. I don’t say ‘tourism’, I say authentic, respectful and responsible travel. There is simply no substitute for visiting another place and experiencing it first-hand –  talking to the people who live there, sharing their food, seeing the wildlife in its own natural habitat, getting a feel for what another culture is truly like.

The slipyard where RMS Titanic first took shape

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland last fall. I’m a huge Titanic buff, so the opportunity to stand on the slipway where the epic ship was built in Belfast was an amazing experience, but so was the Black Cab tour that we took to gain an in-depth understanding of the Troubles. Belfast is a lovely city with lovely citizens who were so warm and welcoming, but we could feel how fragile the peace is, and how worried everyone was about the repercussions of Brexit.

Going on an adventure teaches you resilience, and often a lot about yourself at the same time. Visitors to Africa often find it a transforming experience on many levels, and TripSavvy lists a safari as one of their 10 Most Romantic Adventure Trips You Can Take.

Samburu Reserve

On a trip to Kenya we spent some time in remote Samburu reserve, where tall giraffe and red-tinted elephants wander among the thorn trees nearby and purple hills roll away into the hazy blue air for as far as the eyes can see. We stood on the rust-coloured ground, and I had the most profound feeling of having stepped back in time through eons to when the world was new, and we might have been the only creatures upon it. It was an extraordinary experience, and I wasn’t alone in having it.

Some of our best and most memorable experiences have been the unscripted interactions with local life.

One night in Bali, after suffering from a migraine all day, I asked my hubby if we could just go up to the restaurant on the roof our our beach resort. It had a Mexican theme, which was oddly the rage in the main city of Denpasar at the time, and our eating there was more a matter of convenience than expecting great food. It was a hot, humid night, but the cooler air on the rooftop was soothing. We were the only patrons, and the entire restaurant staff trickled slowly out to chat with us as we enjoyed the truly excellent Mexican meal they made for us. They pulled up chairs around our table and asked us all kinds of questions about Canada, including “What do you do when it snows?”, to which we replied, “We go to work just like usual.” They were flabbergasted that we would drive in the snow. It became one of the most memorable nights of our trip through southeast Asia.

In the town of Chivay in the Andes, our tour stopped for lunch before lurching up to the top of Colca Canyon to watch the huge condors fly. The restaurant owners kept a pet alpaca in the courtyard, which my hubby and I were immediately drawn to. For some reason the friendly little camelid decided that my hubby’s hiking pants looked really appetizing, and we laughed as it tried determinedly to snag a bite out of one pant leg.

Staying at home teaches you nothing. Staying at home stunts our burgeoning sense of connectedness.

Staying home will only promote insularity, xenophobia and fear, and people do terrible things when they’re afraid. When we travel, we begin to understand how alike we are to other people on our planet. We share the same joys and the same pains, the same desire to share life with someone special, the same need to leave some small legacy behind. The differences in how we approach these are what makes each culture so rich and fascinating.

There’s no substitute for sitting in a restaurant overlooking the lights of Hong Kong harbour at night, trying to look elegant while attempting to spear your slippery scallop with a jade chopstick. In a small town about half an hour away from Vienna, my mother’s best friend embraced her as they reunited for the first time since  nursing together during WW2 50 years before, then served us rich coffee and a delectable Austrian torte in her flower-filled house. In Cairo we ate mezze in a dim restaurant filled with the aromatic smoke from huge pans of sizzling falafel. We had afternoon tea in New Zealand while watching, and feeling, Tongariro volcano rumble in irritation on the near horizon.

The wonder of standing in the Temple of Heads at Tiwanaku, one of the most enigmatic archeological sites in the world, where an ancient civilization flourished so high in the Bolivian Andes that they were above the tree line and had to invent new techniques to grow food, is something you have to experience in person. As is having breakfast in the morning sunlight as the mighty Zambezi river flows swiftly by just a few feet away..

What we need is for travel suppliers to find more sustainable ways to provide their services, and as travelers it’s equally our responsibility to be good guests. That means:

Many suppliers are indeed looking at improving their environmental footprint. Expo 2020, taking place in Dubai from October 20 2020 to April 10 2021, will include a climate-focused event that “looks to further advance the conversation, and encourage action on climate and sustainability issues that are leading to an increase in natural catastrophes.” As citizens of the world, let’s do our part and be responsible travellers.

A little mystery is good for us

Shadowy haunted bridge outside Gettysburg, PA

In 1937 Amelia Earhart disappeared off the face of the earth in what was purportedly the first attempt to fly all the way around the world.

Earhart was a glamorous 1930s personality. She became an icon of intrepid explorers, and vanguard of women who chose to pursue a different path than mother/homemaker. Around 22,000 miles into the flight, somewhere past the Nukumanu Islands near Papua New Guinea, confusing messages by Earhart came across the radio…and then nothing.

No substantiated clues have ever been found of either her body, that of her navigator’s, or the plane they were flying. Rumours that the flight was in actuality a government mission have added to the mystique.

For the past 82 years people have been searching for clues as to what happened to Earhart, and now famous explorer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic wreck in its deep watery grave, has made it his own mission to find her plane. It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with.

We humans are fascinated by mysteries, and are driven to try and solve them, although there’s a certain romanticism in not knowing, in leaving the truth to our imaginations.

Along with legions of people, I’ve always been fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic – the tragedy, the mystery surrounding what should have been a stellar maiden voyage of a great ship, the Edwardian glamour of the ship itself. I even delivered a special two-hour evening presentation about the event for our local public library to honour the 100th anniversary. This fall my husband and I are traveling to Ireland, and I’m very much looking forward to visiting the Titanic museum in Belfast and seeing the original dry-dock site.

We love mystery so much that it became a literary genre in the 1800s when Edgar Allan Poe introduced a detective in his story Murders in the Rue Morgue. The first time my hubby and I visited England we made a beeline for the Sherlock Holmes plaque at 221b Baker Street, enjoyed the Holmes silhouette on the wall of the Baker Street tube (subway) station. We also had lunch at the atmospheric Sherlock Holmes pub in Charing Cross, where there’s also an upstairs dining room full of memorabilia. Great Britain is so associated with mystery, crime and spy novels that, to be honest, we both wore trench coats during our entire trip!

Fans of Conan Doyle’s stories were so devoted that when the author had tired of his detective hero and decided to kill him off, the public outcry was so great that Conan Doyle had to miraculously revive the character. (BBC online has a great retrospective about the influence of one of our greatest fictional detectives.)

My hubby and I are devoted to several good mystery series. We’ve watched every iteration of Sherlock Holmes, thoroughly enjoyed all the wonderful Hercule Poirot with David Suchet and many others on PBS Mystery. A couple of years ago we got into the excellent Canadian The Murdoch Mysteries, as well as Miss Fisher from Australia, the Brokenwood Mysteries from New Zealand, and Death in Paradise.

We have, of course, watched almost every Agatha Christie story ever produced. I was really tickled when an episode of Dr. Who revolved around the real-life mystery of Agatha Christie’s own ten-day disappearance in 1926.

The entertaining 1978 movie version of Death on the Nile, with one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen and amazing cinematography, inspired me to fulfill a lifelong dream to go to Egypt, and is still one of my all-time favourite movies.

I have the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in print, which I love for their period atmosphere, and for the same reason my absolute favourite mystery series is the Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy Sayers, set in the 1930s.

Why do we love mysteries so much? It’s not just humans who relish them, either – dogs, for example, are universally curious about everything. When our two dogs were still alive, our male’s favourite game was to play hide-and-seek with me: I would hide myself somewhere in the house and call his name in a particular tone of voice, and he would delightedly spend the next few minutes trying to find me. It’s one of the things I miss the most since our dogs got old and moved on to their well-deserved doggie heaven.

There’s a great article on the Psychologies website about why we all love mystery, and why it’s important in our lives. It shares the story of an artist, John Newling, who went so far as to ask British insurance company Lloyd’s of London in 2006 to insure him against ‘loss of mystery’. His comment was “Mystery is a predisposition to search, enjoy, play and wonder”. I think that’s a great summation of the appeal of mystery in our lives, and I can empathize with his feelings that mystery is disappearing is our increasingly structured world.

Statue of David Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

I would have loved to be an explorer in the 1800s to early 1900s, when most of the world was still a mystery. The search for Amelia Earhart reminds me of one of the greatest searches ever undertaken, to find out whether the great explorer and missionary David Livingstone was still alive. He had travelled to Africa in 1865 to search for the source of the Nile, one of the greatest geographical questions in history, and hadn’t been heard from in several years when the New York Herald newspaper sent Henry Morton Stanley off to try and find him.

The sense of mystery and not knowing what might lie around the next corner is a critical part of adventure travel. Even though most of the world has been charted by now, for all of us modern adventurers there’s still our own personal exploration of something yet to be seen.

True adventure travel is never planned to be perfect or completely structured – there should always be a certain amount of uncertainty, and some opportunity for off-the-cuff exploration.

The adventure is in the mystery of what you’ll discover about a new place, a new culture, and about yourself in the process.

Some of the best experiences my hubby and I have had have occurred when a journey has derailed a bit, or something not on the original itinerary came up and we ran with it.

Botswana traffic jam: we had front-row seats for watching a group effort to get a truck unstuck from a flooded road

We had a hilarious camel ride through the Sahara in Egypt, as well as a visit to an authentic camel market where our group’s arrival stopped everything in its tracks. Once the local traders had recovered, however, one man eyed me for a bit and then offered my hubby 1,000 camels for me, which at about $1500 per camel amounted to a considerable sum of money. My hubby joked that if he thought the fellow actually had that much, I might have remained in Egypt. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

If you’re interested in being a true modern adventurer, follow this blog for ongoing information and inspiration, and for news about my upcoming Adventure Travel 101 online course, currently in development.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what your favourite mysteries are, whether novels, television/movies, or real-life!